7 Character Design Tips!

In the recent projects I’ve published, I captured a very typical work process for me. Many of the responses and inquiries I got were praise on the use of design thinking. I wasn’t aware of it, but after many years of working like this, I’ve been able to accumulate a lot of tools and processes to help me get my best work done.

I’ll share 7 workflow tips that help me get the work done.

  1. Plan more.
mind map techniques

If you are not planning, then you are planning to fail. Energy blasts of sketches, silhouettes, and graphic shapes are fine if they work for you, however, don’t do it because someone else’s doing it. Tools serve to be used, not for you to be used by them. For me, it was important to develop my process of discovery:

It’s essential to find out more about who our character is. I’ll stress this point later, but for now allow yourself to drift, wonder, make mistakes, say and write idiotic things without judgment, get into the flow state, the takeaway here is quantity over quality until you reach abundant quality.

You’re also building ideas for later steps with the ref hunting process.

character design mood board
character design reference
mood board template

The results are in:

cyberpunk characters
cyberpunk character art

2. Get to know your characters. Focus on their essence rather than their visuals.

Their visuals are a byproduct of their essence. This is a common mistake and an understandable one, because it’s visual media. We often forget to look inwards at ourselves and who the character we are drawing, actually is. So we stay on the surface level. Why is it important to get to know your character? It’s about empathy, falling in love for who they are. So you can write them a love letter, only the letter is made through concept art instead of words.

character design tutorial

“Love and work… work and love, that’s all there is.” – Sigmund Freud

2.1 How do we apply this?

By using a mind map, we have a bird’s eye view of our briefing. Thus, we can easily see problems that converge into the same solution. For instance, having a hoodie on our character will wrap up a lot of different needs:
– Makes them mysterious,
– Is a nod to their introvert personality, they’ll just feel more comfortable that way, wearing one.
– Masks their identity from enemies.
– It’s an ergonomic function to their environment, specially in a desert or post-apocalyptic place, where it protects from debris, dust, sand.

art theory

Let’s take a practical example I applied recently, to my upcoming work, which I’m working on in my spare time:

I did not do a good job at practicing what I’m preaching before. I did a sequence of characters and I focused all my efforts on only one. An oracle character design I posted a few weeks ago, but I wanted to make a series. It later became apparent that I needed to refine the current mind map to find out more about the other characters from that sequence, to find more of who I wanted to draw next (A beachmaster class design). It’s like finding more about your guests before inviting them to your party.

mind map for concept art

To do this through mind mapping, and to work further on my ‘Beast Master’ character class, (a thing I’m working on atm and will release later) we have to find who he was, and his background, and so on. We can’t just fit the Oracle’s mind map and force it to fit. So, I refined the mind map;

I started to discover:
– He was a feral kid, (by having a bird’s eye view of my briefing, the dots were connected.)
– A feral kid brings body language, which in turn, tells me how dirty his face will look
– How his weight will affect his stance & posture
– What kind of motifs and props he carries…
– He is likely skinny rather than muscular. (These are things that you can test in sketching later, but you already are solving a lot of the design through discovery. So you won’t need pages and pages of sketches for the design alone, maybe for the art, but not for the design.)

It’s really about going from an acquaintance to a close friendship, with the character you’re making. In turn, I saw the analogy and room to award them class-specific traits, such as:
– Shapeshifting to werewolf or summoning beasts from the wild to aid in combat.
We really aid all the production departments with this method, from animation, to design and programming.

The groundwork and sketching were done in the first mind map, and the intention is not to rework it or ignore the work we did. But if we find something better along our discovery journey, then we use it.
I’ll go in-depth on this process in my next character tutorial, which I intend to release on Artstation Marketplace.

”A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

fallout new vegas benny

Character design win: Even though Fallout New Vegas is re-known for cutting a lot of corners and rushing production due to logistics out of their reach, I think they did an amazing job on dwelling with character design, exploring personality, and mapping them to a realistic degree, they are real living organisms within the game. The work done with characters like Doc Mitchell, Benny, and the Boomers gang are testaments to this, I wonder what else could have been done with more time in their hands to invest further in developing what’s already a masterpiece in narrative design and storytelling.

3. Add colors that invoke the character’s mood:

This one is tough, NGL, I struggle with color too sometimes, because I don’t want to take a random choice at designing something. It goes against the definition of the very word ‘design’. Whether the decision is made by feeling or deliberate thinking, at least there is a reason there and that’s what matters, if you can elaborate on it and expand it, that’s perf.

A worse sin than adding random colors is adding colors based on a color theory chart, which is basically ‘let’s paint this red because red is the danger color!!!!’, which isn’t a skeleton key to fit everywhere and solve all kinds of color-based problems, of all sorts, and with the same solution.

color theory art

Hopefully, many of these will invoke a certain mood, they invoke a certain sense. You don’t even have to do an elaborate study, nor take much time analyzing. Just take those in as if you’re at a museum, see which one you want to cast for your character. There you have a color comp that matches the tone of your work, if not, keep going.

“The world has a soul and whoever understands that soul can also understand the language of many things.”
Paulo Coelho

4. Find your audience and the gamer archetype you want to sell to.

We work for client’s customers, not for our amusement, not for the studio’s director, not for the game journalists, not for Metacritic. This work is done for our client’s client, the gamers.

character archetypes

Do we always have to pander and sell to the archetype of the young teenager who plays an MMORPG and wants to see an oversexualized elf, wearing impractical armor because you know, they are in puberty? If we work for a studio’s mission that aligns with this, then yes.
If you’re doing your personal work and building your portfolio as a student, I’d encourage you to explore adjacencies and find other solutions to sell other than to sell to the lowest common denominator, what’s commercially safe, many may disagree with me and that’s fine, it’s a safe bet to tailor your work to be the most commercial safe avenue. However, I’d argue we don’t need just anyone and everyone to be our clients, we only need our niche.

I want to go back to those aesthetics for a second, which, paired often with slot machine mechanics, with loads of sounds, and colors popping out a loot box? It sells because of obvious reasons. It’s what some gamers want to buy, and it’s what they want to see, at their stage, in their life, fulfills their entertainment value, but can we explore different archetypes? so we can also sell to adults? teens? female gamers? etc? What’s your story? Your personal myth? What’s theirs? Sell that, again if you don’t know who you’re selling to, you don’t know yourself as a designer.

The first paragraph, as an example of content, works for a myriad of reasons, I never dissected it in a proper design laboratory (mind maps, persona profiles, discovery) but at a first glance, I dare say it works because:
– The teenager as the target audience, is growing up into adulthood, so normally, they are more inclined to see those kinds of visuals.
– They also search their inner sense of adventure and seek to unlock wonders of the world and their own inner mythology, so an RPG-like system serves that as well, bundled with reward systems.

“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” – Carl Jung

horizon zero dawn characters

Character design win: Even though I didn’t have time to play the game yet, Alloy from Horizon Zero Dawn nails everything I like to see and have outlined in the point above. I can tell who she is by just looking at her, she carries personality, vibe, and culture. Loish is a really good designer and artist so it’s no surprise. This game and the character itself call to me from afar and have been doing so for a while now. It’s one of those games or movies, or books, which I see repeatedly, as a pattern, either on articles online, people talking about it, or stumbling upon pictures. I *know* I am meant to play it and at the end, I will enjoy it and come out of it with a feeling of: ‘No wonder everyone was talking about it and was all up my face, I loved that game’, – This happened to me with other media I digested and I can sense it on this one, likely because it already aligns and agrees with me and what I like to see and consume.

If you don’t know who your client is you don’t know yourself as a designer.”
– This isn’t mine, I think I stole it from… Chris Do?

5. Never just ‘pose’ your character, use their body language.

amazon tribe children
spiderzero sculpture

When I was being mentored by Simon Lee aka Spiderzero, I learned a lot about theories and methods like this, the soul and inner fire of a creature and character.

At the time I was still digesting all that. It was too much for me to wrap my head around, but it was making sense, like a book that was too complex for me to understand but I understood it held value, the seed grew roots, and one day I’d hope to see the tree flourish onwards even more.

Because Zbrush and 3D are very handy, we often forget the downside of software. There’s no gravity in our work, the work easily floats, so we need to pay attention to that. Mixing 2D and 3D techniques have proved beneficial. They help with rapid generating detail and a benchmark while the 2D adds flow, fluid, drama, and action, and of course, body language and gravity.

6. Be more subtle.

This is a recap from ‘Tank Boy’ above on the first point, as I think I need to stress it. The point of using a Rhino, Elephant, or a charger type, is really about being inspired by nature. It is not a designer’s intent to *copy nature* but to be inspired by it. Hence skinning a Rhino with metal plates would have been too literal, too easy, too cheap. The animal language is there, but you have to work for it. You have to digest it. It’s not a one-bite snack, and because of that, I think it’s savored better by the audience.
For instance, if you look closely at ‘Tank Boy’ in the first points of the article, you’ll notice the neck armor is really a rhino’s face but simplified into abstraction, the Ecko United stickers serve a purpose there too, as well as the Jiu-Jitsu patches over the jacket.

spiderman villains

I remember there was a 1:1 skinned Rhino in the spiderman series. You could obviously tell it was influenced by a Rhino because it was literally a Rhino with metal plates on. This isn’t wrong but it’s not what I like to do. The sense of wonder is gone, and anyone can understand and digest it quickly. I don’t like serving the punchline right away. personally speaking, we all do things different. There’s no right or wrong, I believe for what it was, it probably served the intent well though.

7. Break away from the fundamentals.

This was one I didn’t realize I was doing until an art director stopped me on my tracks and told me so. ‘Forget visual languages, and making shapes all nice and tidy, who cares if they all align mathematically perfect, like they do on Halo? I rather you focus on the character itself, who they are, what they are on about, and work from there instead.’ and he continued. ‘Whenever I hear the words ”visual language”, I cringe a bit, because I know the client wants something they saw in Anthem or Halo, or somewhere else and want us to copy it.’ Design your characters by story instead.

There’s nothing wrong with knowing the fundamentals, fundamentals are important, but don’t stop there, go back to what made you want to start in the industry in the first place. Art is not mathematical nor fully methodical. A lot of people will want to tell you what the most efficient use of your time and skills is, question them, be punk rock about it. Go your own way, find your niche and yourself too.

“Knowing others is wisdom, knowing the self is enlightenment. Mastering others requires force; mastering the self requires strength; he who knows he has enough is rich. Perseverance is a sign of will power.” – Lao Tzu

About the Author:
Miguel Nogueira is a freelance concept artist, designer, and storytelling strategist. He’s worked with studios to help mapping solutions to reach their audience, unlock the gamer’s sense of wonder and myth, as well as their needs, while collaborating with the studios under fun work processes.

He has been featured at CGSociety Hall of Fame and Behance, also on Kotaku and 3DTotal. He’s also recently worked with Frictional Games on the release of Amnesia’s Rebirth and an upcoming, AAA, unannounced MMORPG as Character Design Lead. If you’re interested in having Miguel speak at your event, want to sponsor his content, or start a project? please send all business inquiries to: hello@menogcreative.com